At the Highwayman's Pleasure (18 page)

‘And have I not proven that you cannot trust
me
?’ Gently but firmly he released himself from her grip. ‘I am an outcast, Charity. I am tolerated here, but nothing more. I am welcomed by one or two of the most charitable families, but if they knew of my unlawful activities—! I cannot ask any woman to share such a life. Believe me, you should remove yourself from Allingford, away from your father. Away from me.’

‘No!’

‘Goodbye, Charity.’

‘Ross—’ She had to make one final attempt. She took a deep breath. ‘Ross, don’t go, please. I—I think I am in love with you.’

Something blazed in his eyes: delight, triumph, wonder. If he said he did not care for her now she would not believe him. She waited, hoping he would take her in his arms again. Instead he gave her a look of such tender sadness that she knew he was going to walk away.

‘It will pass, my dear, believe me.’

‘But why should it pass? Why should we not—?’

He put a finger on her lips.

‘Charity, I am not for you. I have nothing—less than nothing, for if Phineas discovers I am the Dark Rider I shall certainly hang and any connection between us would leave you in a most perilous position.’

‘Then give it up now! I have enough money for both of us—’

‘Do you think your father would rest if you married me? Hannah would make sure he did not! I cannot protect you from them, Charity. You need to find yourself a rich, powerful lover to keep you safe.’ He cupped her cheek, saying with a wry smile, ‘With your beauty it should not be difficult.’

She wanted to tell him she did not want anyone else, but she knew he would not listen. She cursed that stubborn streak, even while she loved him for it.

‘Ross—’

‘No. I must go.’ He pulled her close and kissed her, hard, and while she was still recovering from the swooning power of that last embrace he left her.

 

Chapter Nine

C
harity tossed and turned in her bed, going over and over that last meeting with Ross. After he had left the dressing room she had struggled not to cry. Betty had come in, her face and manner stiff with censure, but she had taken one look at her stricken mistress and held her peace. She had fussed around Charity like a mother hen, asking no questions and keeping up a flow of inconsequential chatter as she helped her mistress to dress and escorted her to the little house in North Street. Charity had retired immediately, pleading a headache, but her bed had not been the sanctuary she had hoped and now she lay, dry-eyed, staring into the darkness.

She did not regret giving herself to Ross. It had been her choice, her decision. She was no young debutante to be ruined by it. She had money of her own and even if a child should result from that one, glorious coupling it would be a child born of love and her money would ensure it did not suffer, even if Ross would not marry her.

She shifted uncomfortably, remembering the finality of that last kiss. She could not believe Ross had meant to hurt her. The brutal manner of his leaving had something to do with her father, she was sure of it. Something to do with the kidnap. What plan had Phineas suggested to Ross, and why would he not tell her?

* * *

She rose at her usual hour, little rested, but determined to find out the truth. While she breakfasted a message was sent to the stables, and she was soon trotting out of Allingford in a hired gig. The sun was shining; birds were singing from the hedgerows. It was impossible for Charity’s spirits not to lift with such cheerful omens, yet when Wheelston came in sight she was aware of a frisson of anxiety. The building was as stark and forbidding as its owner. She drove directly to the stables, where Jed’s welcoming grin gave her some encouragement. She handed over the reins to him and, upon enquiry, Jed told her the master was in the house.

Squaring her shoulders, Charity made her way to the kitchen. A grey-haired woman was kneading bread at the table, her white arms covered in flour to the elbows.

‘And who might you be, walking in here bold as brass?’ she demanded, startled.

Charity halted. She had forgotten the housekeeper.

‘You must be Mrs Cummings.’ She gave the woman her most charming smile. ‘I do beg your pardon for coming in this way. I am Mrs Weston, from Allingford.’

‘The actress?’ The woman’s brows shot up and for once Charity was thankful for her current popularity.

‘Yes, and I am come to see Ro—Mr Durden.’

‘Are you now? Well, the master went off to his study a few minutes ago. I’ll go and see—’

‘No, please, there is no need,’ said Charity quickly. ‘You are very busy and I know my way.’

Before the astonished woman could move, she swept across the room and out into the hall. As she closed the kitchen door behind her a laugh trembled upon her lips. Ross would have no easy task explaining this visit to his housekeeper!

In the study Ross was seated at his desk with his back to her, but he jumped up with an oath when he heard her quiet ‘good morning’. The face he turned to her was pale and drawn, and there were dark circles beneath his eyes that suggested that he, too, had spent a sleepless night. The thought encouraged her, a little.

‘What the devil are you doing here? How did you get in?’

‘Through the kitchen,’ she answered him, stripping off her gloves. ‘I fear I have confirmed your housekeeper’s worst fears about actresses. By the by, I cannot think she did not notice that you had a visitor while she was away—a female visitor. Did she quiz you about that?’

‘She knows better than to ask,’ he said shortly. ‘I told you not to come. There is nothing here for you.’

His roughness flayed her and she responded bitterly.

‘Don’t worry, I have not come to weep all over you and demand recompense for my lost virtue.’

The harsh look fled.

‘Charity, how can I—?’

‘Stop!’ She put up her hand, knowing if he showed her any sympathy her fragile control would crumble. ‘There is no more to be said about that. I came here because I need to know the truth.’

She untied the strings of her cloak. Ross was still glaring at her and she feared he might yet manhandle her out of the house. She was relieved when he took the cloak and threw it over a chair.

‘What happened when you met my father to demand a ransom?’

‘I told you. He would not pay.’ He would not meet her eyes.

‘But there is more, isn’t there? He proposed some other plan, did he not?’ His silence and the grim set of his mouth sent a chill down her back. ‘Did...did he suggest that you deliver me up to him?’

He strode towards the door. ‘You should go now—’

‘No. I am not leaving until you tell me what occurred. Do you think it too dreadful for me to contemplate?’

‘He is your father.’

‘Father?’ Her lip curled in disdain. ‘He lost the right to that title when I was still a babe.’

Ross was at the door, but he turned back to her, a frowning question in his eyes. She shook her head, quick, jerky movements that showed how tense she was.

‘It was n-not so very bad, really. Not compared to the beatings and being locked in the c-cupboard and s-seeing him destroy my mother and my stepmother, bit by bit, with his petty tyranny.’

Her voice shook and the effort she was making not to break down tore at his heart. He said softly, ‘Tell me.’

She did not answer immediately but chewed her lip, a darkling, faraway look on her face, as if she was recalling some unpleasant memory. At last she raised her chin, resolutely meeting his eyes.

‘He cut off my hair. Mama used to call it my crowning glory. She would spend hours, when I was a child, brushing it until it shone. She said it was a gift from God.’

Ross looked at the honey-pale locks that gleamed beneath the frivolous little bonnet, framing her face like a gilded halo. He remembered them fanned out loose and abandoned over the pillow of the daybed, or running heavy as silk between his fingers. His skin tingled at the memory, but the sensation turned to a shiver as he stood, silent and unmoving while the words tumbled out of her.

‘It was summer, such a hot day, and I thought nothing of letting the sun dry my hair, but Phineas said I was being provocative. Shamelessly immoral.’ She wrapped her arms across her breasts, as if suddenly aware of him. ‘I was fourteen years old and just beginning to think that I might one day find a man—a kind, gentle man who would want me for a wife. Someone to look after me.’ She dropped her head. ‘There were plenty of men at the sheep washing that day, but not one of them was prepared to stand up against Phineas. He...he made them hold me down while he cut my hair off with the sheep shears.’

Ross clenched his fists and raged silently at Phineas Weston. How could anyone, especially a man of God, humiliate a child in such a way? She had even then needed someone to protect her.

Charity pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose. A prosaic gesture that made her seem even more vulnerable, but when she spoke again her voice was stronger.

‘I vowed then that Phineas would never touch me again. I did not go home—my stepmother was by then such a browbeaten, timid woman and so in thrall to her husband that I knew I could never persuade her to come away with me. I just walked, away from Saltby and Beringham and all the places I had known. Heaven knows what would have become of me if I had not met Hywel Jenkin and his travelling players. He bade me join them, asked no questions of my appearance or my history until I was ready to tell him. I changed my name to Agnes Bennet and found I had a natural talent for the stage: I began by playing boy’s roles, for which my short hair was no impediment, and through Hywel’s kindness and care I learned all the arts of the theatre. He encouraged me to go to London, to seek my fortune in Drury Lane.’ She smiled. ‘I did very well there.’

‘So why did you leave?’

She gazed at him for a long moment, as if trying to decide how much to divulge.

‘I behaved very badly,’ she said at last. ‘I persuaded a young man to fall in love with me.’

He paused and waited patiently for her to speak again.

‘Gideon. He was very sweet.’ The faraway look in her eye and gentle smile sent jealousy pounding through Ross like a battering ram.

‘Then to bewitch him would not have been difficult, given your charms.’

Her eyes flew to his face when he spoke so roughly, and he saw the pain in them. She said quietly, ‘It was all a charade, and I am not proud of it. There was a crowd of young bucks who came regularly to the theatre. I was flattered by their attentions and when they asked me—paid me very well—to participate in a practical joke I agreed. I was to captivate a young man and trick him into thinking he was marrying me, when in fact his bride was someone completely different. It was a very mean-spirited thing to do, and all for a jest.’

‘Then why did you take part?’

‘At first I thought there would be no harm in it. They were all rich young men, spoiled and impetuous. It was to be a prank, a joke. But Gideon was not like the others. He was kind, thoughtful and so charming that I was soon regretting I had agreed to trick him.’ She would not meet his eyes and a blush of shame mantled her cheek. ‘Unfortunately by then it was too late. I had put myself in the power of a very unpleasant character. At first I had been flattered by his attentions, but... He was a bully, no different from my father, in many ways.’ She shuddered. ‘I was fortunate that I managed to keep him at arm’s length as long as I did. He was very cruel—it was his own cousin that he coerced into taking my place as Gideon’s bride.’

‘And the trick succeeded?’

She nodded.

‘It was only by the greatest good fortune that disaster was avoided. I can take no credit for it. I knew Gideon’s affection for me was infatuation, that he would recover, and, thankfully, he fell in love with his young bride. It was seeing them together that made me realise what I wanted from my life. A home, good, loyal friends, perhaps even a husband of my own.

‘I knew then I should break free from the hateful man who sought to control me, and I did. I left London five years ago and vowed never to return.’ A flicker of mischief curved her lips. ‘At least, not as Agnes Bennet. Perhaps one day I shall return under my own name.’

‘And did you mind, seeing the young man—Gideon—fall in love with another woman?’

‘Not in the least. I was only thankful that I had not caused him irrevocable harm.’

Ross’s jealousy subsided and his heart swelled as he realised how hard this confession was for her. She wanted no secrets between them: she was laying her soul bare, the ultimate expression of her faith in him.

‘Why did you come to Allingford?’ he asked her gently.

She gave an expressive little shrug. ‘I was tired of touring, of never having a home of my own. I wanted to settle down, to find my real place in the world.’

‘Perhaps that place is with Jenkin,’ said Ross, determined to remove even that one, lingering doubt. ‘He has done a good job of protecting you thus far.’

‘He has been like a father to me, so much more so than my own unnatural parent. But I fear Phineas has not done with me yet.’ She met his eyes with a steady, demanding look. ‘That is why I must know what he planned for me, Ross. How can I protect myself if I do not know the truth?’

Blue eyes met black and held, a clashing of wills, both determined. Ross realised she had a right to know.

‘He...suggested...’ He stopped, eventually saying through clenched teeth, ‘He did not want your safe return.’

She looked at him for a moment, uncomprehending, then with a little cry she dropped onto a chair.

‘Oh, dear heaven. Does he hate me so much that he would leave me to my fate?’ She gave a bitter little laugh. ‘Why should I be surprised? He drove my mother to her grave, and my stepmama, spewing texts from the Bible to justify his vicious actions. I warned you he would not lift a finger to help me.’

‘True.’ Ross walked across to the window and stood looking out. ‘But it is worse than that. He offered to pay the ransom, as long as I saw to it that you were not found alive.’ He turned and came to stand over her, fixing her with his brooding gaze. ‘Now do you see just how dangerous it is for you to stay in Allingford? Phineas will seize any chance to destroy you, and we know now he would go so far as to pay someone else to do it for him.’ He raised his eyes to the ceiling and exhaled swiftly. ‘And he calls himself a man of God.’

‘He is a grasping, greedy hypocrite, and always has been.’ She wrapped her arms around herself again. ‘I will not run away. I have spent the past thirteen years as a fugitive, living under a false name, afraid that my father might one day catch up with me. But I am tired of living a lie. For years I have had nightmares about Phineas—I will not live that way any longer.’ Suddenly the fight went out of her and her shoulders slumped. ‘Perhaps I should not have come to Allingford, so close to my old home, but it felt right; Hywel, the theatre and my friends there—I thought I could ignore my father and that he could ignore me. If he was still parson at Saltby then perhaps that would have been possible, but he has wealth now, and power, and his self-importance is such that he will seek to destroy what he cannot control.’

Ross’s heart went out to her, this golden girl with the tortured eyes. He wanted to take her in his arms and promise to look after her, but that was not possible; he could only make things more dangerous. Instead he pulled up a chair and sat down beside her.

‘I have been trying to find a weakness, a way to discredit Weston, but he is shrewd and careful. Perhaps I should put a bullet in him.’

‘But you are not a murderer, Ross.’

‘Not for my own sake, but for yours—’

Charity’s initial horror at learning that her father wanted her dead was fading and she was ever more grateful to Ross for refusing to countenance his plan. She reached out to touch his hand and was heartened when he did not pull away.

‘I would not have you commit such a heinous crime for me.’ She jumped up, exclaiming, ‘Oh, I will
not
give in! There must be some other way to bring him down.’ She began to pace the room, her brow furrowed. ‘I remember when Hywel told me how rich Phineas had become I wondered how that could be.’

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